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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

"Troilus and Cressida" by William Shakespeare

Troilus and Cressida is a strange play. It is a love story in which at least one of the lovers is unfaithful. It ends on this sad note, compounded by the death of brave Hector. There are some brilliant scenes and some also-rans. But it contains some of the best Shakespearean insults, perhaps some of the best in all drama:
  • Thou bitchwolf’s son, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!” (A2 S1)
  • he has not so much brain as earwax” (A5 S1)
Introduction from the Folger edition

“By convention in epic, the characters associate with the gods and thereby share the glory of these divinities; by convention in drama, the gods do not appear, and the characters therefore cannot exceed the limits of their humanity.”

“In contrast to Chaucer’s Troilus, Shakespeare’s fails to mature in response to his love and remains in adolescent self-absorption,

Shakespeare’s Cressida shows nothing of the thoughtful reflection of her Chaucerian predecessor; it is replaced in her by calculation and manipulation of her suitors.”


I saw T&C in an amateur production by the Marlowe Youth Theatre on 5th March 2020 and the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.

The Play: Spoiler alert!
Act 1
Scene 1
Troilus confesses his love for Cressida to Pandarus (who is the uncle of Cressida and has been acting as a go-between). This love unmans him, prevents him from going to fight the Trojans.
“I am weaker than a woman’s tear, 
Tamer than sleep” (8-9)
This theme of love unmanning someone is reflected elsewhere in the play in the theme of Achilles, who has withdrawn to his tent because he loves a Trojan princess and has sworn to her that he will not fight. It is contrasted with the fact that the Greek army is fighting to retrieve Helen for Menelause and that therefore Helen is the cause of much death:
“Helen must needs be fair 
When with your blood you daily paint her thus.”

Scene 2

Cressida prefers Hector to Troilus. Pandarus tries to persuade her that Troilus is the better man by saying Helen fancies Troilus.

There is a little procession of Trojan warriors (Aeneas Hector Paris Helenus) returning from battle and Pandarus names them to Cressida. A useful bit of stagecraft to introduce characters.

After the princes come the common warriors ... and Pandarus refers to them in the most disparaging terms:
“Asses, fools, dolts, chaff and bran, chaff and 
Bran, porridge after meat. ...
... the 
Eagles are gone. Crows and daws, crows and daws!”
This is another of the themes. Ulysses later speaks in favour of the established order in which each man knows his place. Opposing this is the major role played by Thersites, a servant of first Ajax and later Achilles, who insults his masters with a most inventive range of insults. It is possible that Shakespeare meant Thersites as a comic character, a clown, but traditionally Thersites has been seen as a critic of the established order; he criticises Agamemnon in the Iliad and is beaten for it. So it seems safe to treat Thersites as a threat to the establishment, a way that Shakespeare could use to argue against the pride and arrogance of the Greek and Trojan princes.

Scene 3
We move to the Greek camp. Here is the hymn in which Ulysses praises hierarchy in society:
“When degree is shaked, 
Which is the ladder of all high designs, 
The enterprise is sick. How could communities, 
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities, 
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores, 
The primogeneity and due of birth, 
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels, 
But by degree stand in authentic place? 
Take but degree away, untune that string, 
And hark what discord follows.”
But, on the other hand, Ulysses recognises that ambition is dangerous:
“appetite, an universal wolf, 
So doubly seconded with will and power, 
Must make perforce an universal prey 
And last eat up himself.”
The theme of pride (a key theme of the Iliad) is important elsewhere in this play.

Aeneas bears a challenge from Hector to fight the best man of the Greeks but Ulysses schemes with Diomed to keep Achilles from Hector, putting Ajax in to fight instead, on the principle that you reserve your best till later (but mainly because he thinks Achilles will grow too proud if he wins and perhaps because he is hoping that Ajax will be killed).
“Let us like merchants 
First show foul wares and think perchance they’ll sell; 
If not, the luster of the better shall exceed 
By showing the worse first.”

Act 2
Scene 1
This is our introduction to Thersites, perhaps the most ingeniously insolent of any of Shakespeare’s characters, with a wonderful repertoire of insults:


“I would thou didst itch from head to foot,
and I had the scratching of thee; I would make 
thee the loathsomest scab in Greece.”

“thou sodden-witted lord.”

"Ajax, who wears his wit in his 
belly, and his guts in his head”

Scene 2
Priam and the Trojan princes: the Greeks have offered peace if Helen is returned. The Trojans are debating the offer.
“What’s aught but as ’tis valued?”

“’Tis mad idolatry 
To make the service greater than the god;”

“We turn not back the silks upon the merchant 
When we have soiled them,”
There is, in passing, an obvious reference to Marlowe’s Faust:
“Is she worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl 
Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships”

Scene 3
“He that is proud eats up himself.”

“I do hate a proud man as I hate the engendering 
of toads.”

Ulysses winds Ajax up to the point where Agamemnon has to restrain Ajaz from attacking Achilles

Act 3
Scene 2
This, in the middle of the play, is where Troilus kisses Cressida. There are hints of sexual love but also heavy foreshadowing that love cannot last:
“This ⟨is⟩ the monstruosity in love, lady, that
the will is infinite and the execution confined, that 
the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.”

“They say all lovers swear more performance
than they are able”
Scene 3
Back in the Greek camp, Ulysses is scheming to take Achilles down a peg or two.
“pride hath no other glass
To show itself but pride,”

He proposes that the Greek princes all pass by Achilles’ tent in a procession and ignore Achilles, sending him to Coventry.
Achilles is stung:
“they passed by me 
As misers do by beggars,”
Ulysses points out that Achilles can’t rely on his past prowess to stay popular. As they say nowadays: you’re only as good as your last gig.
“Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back 
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, 
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes. 
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devoured 
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon 
As done.”
Act 4
Scene 1
The Greeks send an embassy to Troy proposing a prisoner swap: Antenor, a Trojan prince, for Cressida. Cressida is the daughter of Calchas, a Trojan soothsayer who has defected to the Greeks. Diomed wants Cressida as his bride.

Scene 2
Troilus and Cressida have spent the night making love and now Troilus is ready to be off. They get wind of the proposal for Cressida to be off.

Cressida, in an attempt to delay Troilus, delivers one of the great Shakespearean double-entendres:
“My lord, come you again into my chamber.”
Scene 3
The Greeks come to take Cressida away
Scene 4
A sad goodbye scene. T & C swap love tokens: his sleeve for her glove.
He proposes that, if she will keep faithful to him, he will sneak into the Greek camp at night “To give thee nightly visitation.

She, talking to proposed husband Diomed, tries to persuade him not to demand her but he refuses to be bound by her.

Scene 5
The start of the single combat of Ajax and Hector

Act 5
Scene 2
Diomed woos Cressida while Troilus (who is part of a Trojan embassy to the Greek camp) and Ulysses, his host, watch them, unobserved. Cressida at first refuses Diomed and then accepts him, giving Diomed Troilus’s love-token sleeve. Troilus swears he will kill the man with the sleeve; Ulysses tries to restrain him. But fundamentally, Troilus realises that Cressida is unfaithful:
“any man may sing her, if he 
can take her clef.”

“The bonds of heaven are slipped, dissolved, and loosed, 
And with another knot, ⟨five-finger-tied,⟩ 
The fractions of her faith, orts of her love, 
The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics 
Of her o’er-eaten faith are given to Diomed.”

The rest of the play is a series of battle scenes which culminate in the death of Hector at the hands of the Myrmidons of Achilles.


Other great lines
“When I do tell thee there my hopes lie drowned,
Reply not in how many fathoms deep
They lie indrenched” (A1 S1)

“Do you know what a man is? Is
Not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood,
Learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality and
Such-like the spice and salt that season a man?” (A1 S2)

“When the splitting wind
Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks” (A1 S3)

“They tax our policy and call it cowardice,
Count wisdom as no member of the war,
Forestall prescience, and esteem no act
But that of hand.” (A1 S3)

“The worthiness of praise distains his worth
If that the praised himself bring the praise forth.” (A 1 S3)

“There is a law in each well-ordered nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.” (A2 S2)

“some men creep in skittish Fortune’s hall,
Whiles others play the idiots in her eyes!” (A3 S3)

“A plague of
opinion! A man may wear it on both sides, like a
leather jerkin.” (A3 S3)

March 2020; 

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

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